Rahul Gandhi, the reluctant politician

Here are excerpts from a new book, India Rising: Fresh Hope, New Fears. It is written by Ravi Velloor, a veteran journalist who was The Straits Times’ South Asia Bureau chief and is now associate editor.

His critics, and there are millions of them now, refer to Rahul as Pappu - a Hindi word for dupe. Jokes about his intellect abound within India's swelling middle classes.

A Doon School contemporary remembers him as not a particularly bright spark in an institution that emphasised a well-rounded personality and sound instincts over academic excellence. Rahul was removed from school early and abruptly because of fears for his safety - Rajiv, reportedly driving himself and with a security car following at a discreet distance, showed up early one morning and took the lad back into the security of the prime ministerial home.

From then on, for the cocooned lad, some of his best pals were his father's security officers, all older than him, and alongside whom he sometimes practised at the Special Protection Group's firing range in Mehrauli, emerging as a crack shot.

 

Those who know the man better have a different take on his intellect. Senior people in Singapore who have known Rahul speak of an earnest person with a keen interest to debate, and learn about, development issues. One Singapore minister who hosted Rahul in his house spoke of spending the entire evening in serious discussion.

In New Delhi, K. Natwar Singh, no friend of the Gandhi clan these days, once noticed that a book I was carrying had several passages underlined with a pencil. Rahul, he told me, was also a voracious reader and, like me, tended to highlight key passages or thoughts in his books. Despite their falling out, Natwar Singh seemed to have no animus towards Rahul. And he was firmly of the opinion that Congress would not survive if the Gandhis were not around.


Mr Gandhi addressing students in New Delhi in February amid protests over the death of a Dalit scholar in Hyderabad University. Senior people in Singapore, who have known the Indian leader, speak of an earnest person with a keen interest to debate, and learn about, development issues. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Both Sonia and Rahul, he pointed out to me, were unquestioned dynasts - but they were also elected dynasts, repeatedly endorsed by people in parliamentary elections. Sonia too, it appears, is a book lover.


India Rising

Nevertheless, the image of Rahul stuck in people's minds is that of a genial dunce, or Pappu. A series of gaffes has contributed to the reputation. In April 2013, a year before he led the Congress Party into the national election that got it all but wiped out, Rahul spoke to the country's top businessmen at an event organised by the Confederation of Indian Industry. There he warned about investing too much hope in (future prime minister Narendra) Modi, saying "We go into this model where you have one guy who will come and fix everything. He is going to come on a horse, the sun is in the background. There are a billion people waiting. He is coming and everything is going to be fine. No, it's not going to work like that."

Rahul was right of course, but the intelligence of his words was obscured by his clumsy articulation on these and other issues that headline writers seized upon. One of them was to liken India to a beehive. "People call us an elephant… We are not an elephant… we are a beehive. It's funny but think about it. Which is more powerful? An elephant or a beehive?" Rahul was speaking about inane comparisons of China as a massive dragon with its insatiable appetite for infrastructure and India as a slow-moving elephant. He meant to speak about Indian society's resilience, like a beehive that survives strong winds by swaying with it. But while the idea makes sense, the words came out all wrong. People in the audience looked at each other, not sure of what they were hearing.

Six months later, he told a conference of India's Scheduled Castes - former Hindu outcastes now called Dalits - that India's Dalits needed the escape velocity of Jupiter to escape their plight. To escape Earth's gravitational pull, he explained, you need to travel into space at a speed of 11.2km per second. In Jupiter, that was 60kmps. Since Rahul was illustrating the social plight of India's most underprivileged social classes, he was perfectly within reason to use the analogy, but India's media, particularly television and the English print press, is mostly composed of urban, English-educated classes who unconsciously sneer at the lower classes. A fresh round of jokes began to circulate about Rahul. The subtext was that his audience couldn't be trusted to handle a concept like escape velocity. It was as though there was little he could do without attracting ridicule...

There was, of course, the desire to live a life as near normal as his pedigree and position would allow. Rahul loved to race motorcycles, for instance. A ranking bureaucrat, whose government bungalow was not far from Rahul's, told me of the nuisance that the Gandhi scion and friends often created - getting the Special Protection Group to close off Aurangzeb Road in central New Delhi so they could race around on high-powered motorbikes in the middle of the night.

A trip to Singapore in 2006, where he had two lengthy sessions with founding father Lee Kuan Yew, may also have influenced his thinking. "Rahul came back with two insights from his various meetings in Singapore," someone who used to speak to him frequently told me. "One is, do not be in a hurry. Second, build a team of able and reliable people that you can count on to implement your vision once you are ready for the job."

 

Rahul's dual persona was in view in the week he spent on the prosperous island in the heart of South-east Asia. Keen student of the city-state's development story by day, he was a lounge lizard at night. At least once he was spotted late at the Ministry of Sound nightclub, swilling whisky and enjoying himself. But his instinct for people was present throughout. His tour included a visit to an oil-rig building facility operated by Keppel Corp, one of Singapore's top conglomerates. Indian workers on site recognised Rahul and stopped to cheer, a witness to the event told me.

Pleased, he turned to meet them. One janitor held up his broom and joined his palms to greet him in the traditional Indian way, signalling he didn't want to shake hands lest Rahul feel defiled if their hands touched. Jawaharlal Nehru's great-grandson strode up, yanked the broom away, and vigorously pumped hands with the delighted cleaner. That day, in Singapore, the Gandhi family won one more admirer and perhaps hundreds more in that man's village.

Was Rahul putting on an act? Not at all. His father, who was as completely at ease sipping a roadside vendor's tea as dining with the president of the US, would perhaps have done the same thing.

  • India Rising is published by the Straits Times Press and is available for $34.90 at major bookshops. There will be a meet-the-author event at Books Kinokuniya, Ngee Ann City, on May 14 at 2pm.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 01, 2016, with the headline 'Rahul Gandhi, the reluctant politician'. Print Edition | Subscribe